South Africa took a huge step towards reaching next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup on Sunday with a 1-0 victory over their long-time nemesis Nigeria at the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations.

Substitute Thembi Kgatlana scored the only goal of the match in the 85th minute to hand Banyana Banyana the auspicious victory.

The only other time South Africa had beaten Nigeria in the Women’s AFCON was in 2012 courtesy of a lone goal by defender Janine van Wyk – who was named captain in 2013 and has been the leader of the team since then.

On their part, Nigeria had never lost an opening game in the biennial tournament until this defeat to South Africa. They had an unbeaten streak comprising eight victories and two draws, scoring at least a goal on every occasion. But not this time. Not even with the experienced trio of Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie and Francisca Ordega up front.

Adequate preparation is key – In a continent where women’s football is still an afterthought for many football federations, South Africa has continued to set the pace in terms of proper organisation and adequate preparation. Banyana Banyana, who are sponsored by Sasol, have played more matches than any other senior women’s football team on the continent this year prior to the Women’s AFCON. They began with a friendly against Sweden, participated in the Cyprus Cup, played their two-legged Women’s AFCON qualification tie against Lesotho and played five games to retain their COSAFA Women’s Championship title. Then they went head to head against World Cup-bound Chile twice, before losing to Ghana just days to the start of the Women’s AFCON.

Meanwhile Nigeria were subdued 8-0 by France in the only international friendly they played this year in April. Before then, however, a home-based selection had in February finished third in the maiden edition of the West African Football Union (WAFU) Women’s Nations Cup. Coach Thomas Dennerby who was appointed in January did not have the privilege of working with both the home-based and foreign-based players at the same time until two weeks to the continental showpiece. And in preparing for the tournament they had to make do with local friendlies against Dominion Hotspurs U-16 boys, Asec Mimosas U-16 Boys and Eleven Sisters de Gagnoa.

Blunt Super Falcons – What better description is there for a team that could not get a shot on target against South Africa despite enjoying a larger chunk of possession throughout the encounter? Even when the best chance of the first half came their way, Oparanozie blasted it over the bar to the disbelief of spectators. That notwithstanding, praise must also go to the South African defence led by Van Wyk. They were resilient even when Nigeria mounted so much pressure in the early stages of the match. In the end three yellow cards to Asisat Oshoala, Faith Michael and Amarachi Okoronkwo was all Nigeria could take away from the match.

Rasheedat Ajibade’s impressive Women’s AFCON debut – In the 68 minutes she spent on the pitch, Ajibade proved that her place in Nigeria’s final squad is not a fluke. Even though news of her start quickly made headlines, the 18-year-old approached her Women’s AFCON debut with no pressure as she worked hard from attack to defence. The first five minutes of the match saw her win a free kick in a promising angle very close to South Africa’s 18 yard box but Ngozi Ebere sent it wide. Then she watched her audacious shot on 25 minutes go over the bar, before she got involved in the build-up to the opportunity that Oparanozie missed.

Another slim victory: This has been the case between Nigeria and South Africa in the Women’s AFCON since 2008 with just one goal separating them in all the five times they have met since then. Although the Super Falcons have had the upper hand most of the time, the slim victories are a testament to how tough their rivalry with Banyana Banyana is.

Thembi Kgatlana – South Africa coach Desiree Ellis made just one substitution which became the game changer. Pacy Thembi Kgatlana replaced Busiswe Ndimeni in the 57th minute and became an instant threat to Nigeria’s defence. Kgatlana’s introduction brought renewed vigour to the South African attack and 28 minutes later when Jermaine Seoposenwe’s long ball found her in a good position, she grabbed the much needed goal with a beautiful volley. A minute later, she got another opportunity where she had just Nigeria’s goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi to beat but Oluehi got to the ball before her. Kgatlana was deservedly awarded the Total Woman of the Match after the game. “Football is not about Nigeria, but it is about everyone who really prepares well against Nigeria,” Kgatlana said after the match.

What they said – “I am very disappointed that we lost the game. It would have been fair if the game had ended in a draw. We had a bit more of the possession and South Africa are really good on counter attacks; we were aware and had analysed before the game so we knew what was coming. I think everybody will agree that we should have scored at least once in the first half and we missed that chance,” Nigeria head coach Thomas Dennerby speaking at the post-match press conference.

“Even though they had a lot of possession, they didn’t really fight us except only one moment. It took us a moment of brilliance to decide the match. We planned very well and executed it. We gave it all out there and we said the first game of the tournament is most important and it is even bigger playing Nigeria. The victory is not only for us but for the people back home,” South Africa head coach Desiree Ellis.

Source: Chibuogwu Nnadiegbulam, AIPS Young Reporter